By Steve Contorno, Kit Maher and Chris Boyette, CNN
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis called on state lawmakers to make permanent existing penalties for companies that require all employees get the Covid-19 vaccination, his latest move to curtail pandemic mitigation efforts.
The proposal would extend indefinitely measures DeSantis signed in 2021 that made Florida the first state in the country to threaten businesses with fines if they required workers to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Those measures pitted DeSantis and Florida against the federal government over President Joe Biden’s efforts to get the country’s workforce inoculated — a standoff that helped boost the Republican governor’s popularity among conservatives.
Now, as DeSantis considers running for president, he is reinstigating that battle.
This time, DeSantis has encouraged skepticism of Covid-19 vaccines altogether, staking out a position far to the right of his top potential rival for the GOP nomination, former President Donald Trump, who continues to count the development of the vaccines as one of his administration’s chief accomplishments.
“They were wrong about lockdowns,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “They were wrong about mask mandates. They were wrong about school closures. They were wrong about mRNA shots. They were wrong about vax passports and vaccine mandates.”
DeSantis wants to make permanent laws passed in November 2021 after he called a special session in response to the Biden administration’s federal vaccine mandate. Those measures, scheduled to expire at the end of June, included prohibitions on mask requirements in schools and government and prohibited vaccines as a condition to travel.
DeSantis had called on lawmakers to ban vaccine mandates outright and inflict punitive penalties on businesses that didn’t comply and threatened to pull state protections against Covid-19-related businesses to any company that followed Biden’s mandate. But the Republican-controlled legislature wouldn’t go that far. Instead, the bill that ended up on DeSantis’ desk said businesses could require vaccination as a condition of employment if workers are allowed to opt-out through a medical or religious exemption, proof of natural immunity or by submitting to regular testing for Covid-19.
It’s not clear if DeSantis would extend the existing limitations on vaccine requirements or if he is suggesting new legislation that would ban any business from making vaccines a condition of employment.
In addition to proposing permanent prohibitions on strict mask and vaccine mandates, DeSantis also wants to prevent doctors from losing their medical license if they stake out positions that contradict medical consensus. During Tuesday’s event in Panama City Beach, DeSantis welcomed to the stage a local dermatologist who has spread unsubstantiated Covid-19 conspiracies on Twitter.
“We want to have our medical practitioners, particularly our physicians, be protected with the freedom to be able to speak the truth,” DeSantis said.
Following Tuesday’s announcement, state House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat, called DeSantis “the number one peddler of a dangerous message from the anti-vax establishment.”
“It is a fake ideology with real consequences — 84,000-plus dead Floridians and counting,” Driskell said. “Masks work, the CDC has proven that. The mRNA vaccines work.”
DeSantis’ more recent skepticism of vaccines is a reversal of his efforts in early 2021, when his administration worked aggressively to make shots available to seniors and the governor boasted about the state’s speed at distributing the vaccine.
“Florida Leads the Nation in Vaccines for Ages 65+ with Seniors First Approach,” said a January 2021 press release from his office.
At one point, DeSantis appeared on Fox News alongside a 100-year-old World War II veteran receiving a dose live on air. At a press conference in July 2021, DeSantis delivered a full-throated backing of the vaccine’s effectiveness against the Covid-19 virus.
“If you are vaccinated, fully vaccinated, the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from Covid is effectively zero,” he said at the time. “These vaccines are saving lives. They are reducing mortality.”
However, as DeSantis set his sights on a potential showdown with Trump for the GOP nomination in 2024, his public support for the vaccine began to wane. He refused to say if he had received a booster shot — a position Trump called “gutless” in a 2022 interview — and he has made Florida an outlier in its approach to the vaccine in recent months. Under DeSantis, Florida became the only state to recommend against vaccinating children and the state Department of Health has also discouraged men under 40 from getting the mRNA Covid-19 vaccine because of concerns about side effects.
Cases of myocarditis and pericarditis, inflammation of the heart and heart lining, are rare after mRNA vaccines, although they are more likely to occur among young men. The risk of heart inflammation is far greater from Covid-19 than from vaccination.
DeSantis in December also successfully lobbied the Florida Supreme Court to empanel a grand jury to investigate the development, distribution and promotion of the vaccine.
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CNN’s Eric Bradner contributed to this report.